This Scientist Sent A Superbug To Space To Help Life On Earth

Solving global issues requires a paradigm shift in how we approach them.
03/06/2017 10:08 pm ET Updated Mar 07, 2017
NASA

At 9:39 a.m. on the morning of February 19th, 2017, NASA Kennedy Space Center’s historic Launch Complex 39A rumbles to life, waking from a six-year slumber. On the platform where men were once launched to the moon, sit a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule loaded with cargo, ready to be catapulted through Earth’s atmosphere to the International Space Station on a resupply mission.

Among the payload, tucked inside a protective box under subzero temperatures, something else sleeps: a deadly, antibiotic-resistant superbug.

This sounds like the premise for a sci-fi television drama, but truth is often stranger than fiction – and in this case, just as exciting. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, better known as MRSA, behaves as its name suggests. It is a superbug that is resistant to antibiotic treatment. And while most MRSA infections aren’t serious, when it enters a hospital setting MRSA can become deadly.

MRSA’s ability to mutate rapidly and unpredictably means it outpaces scientists’ ability to develop drugs that kill it. In turn, MRSA kills more Americans each year than AIDS – many of them children.

That’s where the International Space Station enters the picture. Specifically, its microgravity.

Dr. Anita Goel is a physicist and physician leading the investigation of MRSA in space, in cooperation with NASA. Her hypothesis: a microgravity environment will speed up the superbug’s mutation patterns.

Why, exactly, would anyone want a deadly bug to rapidly multiply inside a floating laboratory 220 miles above our heads?

“If we can use microgravity as an accelerator, to fast forward and get a sneak preview of what [MRSA’s] genetic mutations will look like, then we can build smarter drugs back on Earth,” Goel explains.

In short, space might provide a window into the future, allowing scientists to create the targeted cures they’ll eventually need to kill the ever-changing MRSA bug. It’s not a time machine, but it could be a viable alternative if Dr. Goel’s hypothesis is proven correct.

Dr. Anita Goel addresses NASA Social attendees during a pre-launch briefing.
NASA
Dr. Anita Goel addresses NASA Social attendees during a pre-launch briefing.

And it wouldn’t be the first time Goel has created a solution that seems straight out of a Star Trek episode. As chairwoman and CEO of Nanobiosym, and a world-renowned expert in the emerging field of nanobiophysics – the convergence of physics, nanotechnology, and medicine – Goel won the first XPrize ever awarded for healthcare, in 2013, for her portable Gene-RADAR device. It’s the closest thing to a functioning “tricorder” that is available today.

“If we can use microgravity as an accelerator, to fast forward and get a sneak preview of what [MRSA’s] genetic mutations will look like, then we can build smarter drugs back on Earth.”

The night before her MRSA superbug is launched into space, Dr. Goel offers a demonstration of the XPrize-winning invention over dinner in Orlando. She orders a vegan, gluten-free meal – a source of some confusion for the chef, who approaches the table to ask if cream sauce is permissible (it isn’t). Goel is deeply interested in longevity, and says her research led her to conclude that these dietary choices support healthy aging.

She carries a prototype of the Gene-RADAR with her, locked inside its own suitcase. The portable device uses nanotechnology to rapidly and accurately detect genetic fingerprints from many biological organisms, in real-time.

Placing it on the table, she shows how it works: insert a small amount of saliva or blood into the device and, after Vivaldi’s Four Seasons plays from a built-in speaker during a brief analysis, receive an immediate result indicating the presence of a specified pathogen, from Ebola to the common flu.

The novelty of Gene-RADAR’s tricorder-like abilities is enough to dazzle any dinner guest. But the most striking thing about it is its potential to democratize global healthcare. Empowering individuals with accessible diagnostic information, regardless of location or setting, is a game-changer.

And, like her mission to send MRSA to the International Space Station, the Gene-RADAR speaks to Goel’s lifelong passion for exploring transformative solutions to problems by combining the fields of physics, medicine and technology.

Not unlike the enormous effort it takes to send human beings and the superbugs that can kill them into space, solving global issues requires a paradigm shift in how we approach them.

MRSA kills more Americans each year than AIDS – many of them children.

“If we continue to bring the different silos of fundamental physics and the life sciences together, we can create quantum leaps in our understanding of how we solve problems across medicine, technology, and business,” Goel says.

This is what she finds so exciting about the possibilities opened up by conducting microgravity research on MRSA aboard the Space Station. The experiment begins to bridge the deep divide between physics and life sciences, uniting inanimate systems and living systems in new ways.

Living systems, like the MRSA bacteria, a human being, and the biosphere we inhabit, are open systems that exchange matter, energy, information, and even consciousness with their environment. Classical physics deals primarily with inanimate, closed systems, and according to Dr. Goel, very little is understood about how physics – things like mechanical forces and electromagnetic fields – play a role in cellular processes.

Aboard the International Space Station, that can begin to change.

Goel’s suggestion that the environment affects how an organism’s genes, MRSA or otherwise, mutate and express themselves is not a new one. Take the example of twins who share the same cancer gene, wherein one sibling develops cancer, and the other does not. It is understood that the twins’ external and internal environments must play a role in that outcome. But why it happens, how it happens and what happens, remain to be fully understood.

If we can begin to tease out the why, how and what behind such changes in response to environment, we can begin to address the problems that affect things like healthcare, energy, water and the climate in meaningful new ways.

“We need out-of-the-box solutions. I don’t think policies alone can solves these problems. It takes transformational thinking. And by bringing the different threads of human civilization’s sum total knowledge together and weaving a new fabric, I feel like we can create completely new solutions that are – well, I was going to joke, ‘out of this world,’” Dr. Goel smiles.

At the moment, her box of MRSA is out of this world, its deadly contents being brought to life in experiments conducted by astronauts aboard the International Space Station. But the multiplied superbugs will return to Earth in a few weeks, lulled back to sleep by a deep freeze for their journey home. That’s when Dr. Anita Goel’s work will begin. There is a lot we do not know, but it’s certain that whatever returns in that box will open another door.

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